Military service runs in the blood of new Defence Minister Mark Mitchell, who has picked up the portfolio at a time of growing global instability. Sam Sachdeva spoke to him about New Zealand’s role in fighting terrorism and his exposure to the worst of humanity during the Iraq War.

In person, Defence Minister Mark Mitchell seems more teddy bear than grizzly bear.

A bulky, unfailingly polite presence, the second-term National MP seems relatively junior to be taking on such a weighty portfolio – yet it is in many ways an apt fit.

A self-described “Air Force brat”, Mitchell spent his early years growing up on the Whenuapai and Hobsonville bases while his father flew P3 Orions.

“Do you know what my clearest memory from those days is? Swimming in the pool at Whenuapai.

“My first visit on becoming minister was to Whenuapai, and I specifically asked if we could go and have a look at the pool, so we did and it’s still in the same place – it’s covered now.”

His grandfather, Air Commodore Frank Gill, flew in the Battle of Britain before becoming Defence Minister under Rob Muldoon’s National government, and Mitchell says his family’s focus on public service has played a huge role in where he is today.

“Having that public service sort of ingrained in my own DNA was through the military, so to be back there now I think is almost a full circle.”

That public service first started with the police: to “a rebellious sort of teenager” it seemed a less strict alternative to military service, Mitchell said.

His 14 years on the force included stints as a dog handler – he and his dog Czar were stabbed by an offender with a samurai sword in Rotorua – and in the Armed Offenders Squad.

‘How bad we can be as humans’

Then came an unexpected detour: after retiring from the police in 2003 with plans to set up his own business, he got a call asking him to be part of an advance team with British risk-management firm Control Risks, setting up a security programme for the interim government in Iraq.

“I sort of looked at it and was a bit puzzled why I’d been asked, because the furthest I’d ever travelled was to Australia.

“But I actually saw it as a real opportunity and a new challenge and so I accepted, I took the opportunity and I never looked back.”

Responsible for protecting foreign diplomats while they worked to deliver Iraq’s first elections, later helping to train the country’s new security services, Mitchell said his stint was “really the first time I was ever exposed to just how bad we can be as humans”.

“There’d been a history of massive human suffering in there for a long time…

“[You were] dealing with people that had been tortured, that had suffered terrible torture. You were going to areas, for example the Marsh Arabs where they’d had their homes drained and mass killings into mass graves…having to deal with al-Qaeda and militia groups that were making a wholesale industry out of kidnapping and contract killings.”

Rather than sapping his spirit, Mitchell says it made him understand “that if you’re presented and given an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, then actually you should grab that with both hands and take it”.

“I was out in a position where I was able to deploy resources into areas that needed humanitarian aid, that needed some protection, that needed medical supplies, that needed a supply chain opened up, and so for me, I’m just quietly proud of a lot of the work that we did up there.”

The work of private contractors in the Middle East is not always seen in such a positive light, thanks in large part to the actions of firms like Blackwater.

Mitchell says some criticism of private firms was sensationalised, but concedes there were “some cowboys” in the early days of the Iraq War.

“They were poor operators, and so some of the behaviour was completely unacceptable and the criticisms levelled were justified and in some cases there should have been firm action taken.

“Thankfully as time went on, more regulation was introduced and you saw it sorted the wheat from the chaff, and the cowboys and their companies that operated in a very poor way disappeared.”

The work did not come without its risks. Mitchell says he was “caught up in a few IED attacks”, while a five-day siege by local militia on the Nasiriyah compound, with diplomats and a media contingent present, was a “pretty dire situation”.

“During those days things were a bit grim and uncertain at times, but we got through it.”

Rising terrorist threat

While the political crossfire he deals with these days is less threatening, the shaky nature of global stability presents its own challenges for a defence minister barely a month into the role.

Mitchell spends most of his time thinking about the rising threat posed by terrorist groups, as demonstrated by recent attacks in the UK and Iran.

While New Zealand faces less of a direct threat, he says that does not mean we should be complacent about the importance of tackling the issue.

“We love to travel, we’re always travelling, we love to trade and we trade globally, and we like to go and experience an OE, we enjoy going and living in other countries and enjoying their cultures and those experiences, and we’re not immune.

“This is very real: it’s hard for us because we’re a small country down in the bottom of the world, we can’t see it, we can’t smell it, we can’t taste it – but eventually, if we don’t go out and engage and assist in making sure that we deal with these issues, eventually they’ll wash up on our shores as well.”

New Zealand has a proud of history of playing its role, he says, pointing to current efforts in the Sinai Peninsula, South Sudan, the UAE, South Korea and elsewhere.

“There’s lots of things that we’re actually doing, and they’re smaller contributions in the larger scale of it but they’re important ones, and being there is important in my mind.”

Whether we will step up our contribution is another matter; the Government recently received a request from Nato to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan, while US President Donald Trump has called on other countries to play their fair share in military efforts.

Mitchell says we should remain “open and outward-looking” when it comes to taking on new roles, but that does not mean blindly committing to our allies’ requests.

“Yes I think that we will continue to get requests, no we won’t feel under any pressure because we operate a very independent foreign and defence policy, and we’ll always make decisions first and foremost based on what’s best for New Zealand.”

Defence White Paper

That decision making is based in part on the Defence White Paper, released last year and setting out our military priorities for the coming years.

As chairman of the foreign affairs committee, Mitchell said he had a lot to do with what he calls “our roadmap for the future”.

Some experts criticised the document, arguing it “plumb[ed] new depths of vacuity” and emphasised Antarctica over more pressing issues like instability in Asia, but Mitchell argues it strikes the right balance between our priorities close to home and responsibilities further afield.

“Our economic zone is critically important, we have to look after that, we have to protect that, and actually we also recognise that we need to be looking after our neighbours and giving them some assistance as well…

“I think we’ve got it very well balanced at the moment, where we are doing a job of supporting all cross-agencies that are looking after and policing our own economic zone, assisting our neighbours whilst also being able to contribute to the global terrorist threat that we’re dealing with at the moment.”

While the Defence Force will always play a strong humanitarian role, Mitchell says our opinion does matter when it comes to global issues like the fight against Islamic State.

“At the Shangri-La Dialogue, i got a lot of time with [US Defence] Secretary [James] Mattis and he’s genuinely interested to know what we think and what our view and position is both in the short, medium and longer terms…

“One thing I spoke about at the dialogue is the role smaller nations play, we do bring a different perspective, and I think we’ve got a really important voice at the table.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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